The Braves Made A Mistake By Signing Chris Johnson To A Long Term Contract

cjohn1Chris Johnson was a good hitter for the Braves last year. He probably seemed like a better hitter than he really was because most people in Atlanta didn’t expect anything from the guy who was supposedly a throw-in to the Justin Upton trade.

In terms of fWAR (FanGraphs.com), in 2013 Johnson (2.8) produced just about as well as Upton (3.1) and better than the main guy the Braves traded away, Martin Prado (2.3). On the other hand, rWAR (BaseballReference.com) sees things a bit differently, with Johnson (2.4) and Upton (2.4) both getting beat by Prado (2.8).

Johnson’s extension is guaranteed from 2015 to 2017 for $23.5 million. There is a club option for 2018 at $10 million. His salary this season is $4.75 million, in this his first year of arbitration.

Compare that to Martin Prado, who got a 4-year, $40 million deal after he was traded to Arizona. While Prado’s deal comes in at $10 million per year guaranteed for four years, Johnson’s deal clocks in at $8 million guaranteed for 3 years.

The main problem I have with Johnson is his defense. Which also seems to be the problem the Braves have with Johnson — at least they did last season. The Braves replaced Johnson 43 times from the seventh inning to the ninth inning in 133 games started (32%). That was pretty much all Paul Janish did last August and September. On Twitter I would constantly joke that the Braves are bringing in their third base closer when they brought in Janish to replace Johnson. They’ve replaced Johnson six times in 24 starts this season (25%).

cjohn2Replacing him that much sends a signal that his defense is not worthy of being on the field when the game is on the line. So I’m caught off guard a bit by the team’s desire to guarantee him three more years.

By pretty much every defensive metric, Johnson is well below average. Among the 20 qualifying MLB third baseman in 2013, FanGraphs had Johnson 16th in UZR, 17th in UZR/150 and 17th in Defensive Runs Saved.

While last season was Johnson’s best offensive year, it was also his best defensive year. Perhaps the Braves believe that this improvement both offensively and defensively will continue, but while it’s believable that he could come close to repeating his offensive year, rarely if ever does a player’s defense make a miraculous improvement. Johnson has hit before, in the majors and in the minors, but he’s always been a sub-standard defender at the hot corner.

This extension may also be about the state of third base in baseball. There are quite a few star third basemen in the big leagues, but most of them are young enough to be under team control for the foreseeable future, or are already locked into long term deals. Those that are not under team control are hitting the free agent market this off-season; a group that includes Hanley Ramirez, Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval and Casey McGehee.

Contracts for those free agents to be, plus contracts that could be signed by young stars like Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Kyle Seagear and others could push the value of third base contracts much higher than they currently are. They could also make arbitration numbers climb higher, turning the 2015 and 2016 seasons, when Johnson would have still been arb-eligible, into much higher-salaried years.

cjohn3The Braves most likely feel that this deal locks in lower salary figures for Johnson, and gives them expected costs for the next four years. They must also believe that Johnson will continue to hit, and will provide enough defense to warrant retaining him. They might be among the minority with that opinion.

Much was made about Johnson’s high BABIP last season. His .394 number led the league, and for a while he was on a somewhat historic pace with a BABIP around .420. Johnson has always had a high BABIP, and ranks 16th all-time in highest BABIP, second among active players to Mike Trout.

For that reason I don’t read too much into high BABIP numbers for Johnson. That factor of batted ball luck has always been a part of his game, and I expect it will continue to be, though not quite as extreme as it was last season.

cjohn4Overall my assessment of this contract is that it’s a “half-Uggla.” Based on Johnson’s numbers in the minors and brief stretches in the majors, there’s reason to believe that Johnson’s offense, while driven by a lot of luck, will flash some of what it did last year. Though there’s also reason to believe that his poor on-base ability and mediocre power will be a constant drag on the lineup.

His defense, however, will always be below average. With Andrelton Simmons to his left on the infield there is not as much of a need for Johnson to have stellar range, but it’s still foolish to pay a player like Johnson an above-replacement level salary for below replacement-level defense — especially without having a history of really great offense to make up for his defensive shortcomings.

Like the Uggla contract, the Braves will regret this deal before it’s over. I would argue that the team would be better served by letting Johnson remain in arbitration, and assess his offense and defense from year to year while being content with paying him more if he can once again exceed his career norms. Johnson is an average hitter and a below-average fielder, that’s not rare enough to guarantee a big contract.

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